If you’re the sort of person who defines their life based on making the correct ordering decision at a restaurant, you’re not alone. I agree with you — few things are worse than spending your hard-earned cash on a mediocre restaurant experience, which is why when I’m dining at a restaurant for the first time, I enjoy having a short conversation with the server before placing my order. Mainly, I want to know what said server recommends — after all, they work there and therefore (hopefully) know the menu better than I, a guy who just wants the perfect dinner experience as often as possible.
That said, I’ve always wondered whether these recommendations come from an honest food-lover-to-food-lover place, or is there something more sinister afoot? Like, are they simply trying to brush me off as fast as possible? Do they have a list of near-its-expiration-date specials to push? Or do they just want to fuck with me?
To find out, I asked three restaurant servers and a sommelier how they respond to a customer who needs their help to order dinner.
Nicole R., server at an upscale restaurant in Malibu: I don’t mind giving recommendations to customers, but it’s annoying when they almost expect you to order for them. Everyone has different likes and dislikes, obviously, so it’s hard when a customer has you list everything out and then they end up going with a burger.
Still, I try to be as honest as possible. When I particularly don’t like something, but it’s popular, I’ll let them know. I also try not to make them feel like I’m up-selling everything — I only suggest adding avocado or a protein to something when I feel like it actually does go well with the dish. For dinner service, we usually have specials, and I always recommend those because they’re actually delicious. Also, I’ve personally never heard management or the kitchen ask us to sell anything because it was getting old.
Adam, sommelier at a steakhouse in Tampa Bay: My work is set up in a way that doesn’t really incentivize me [to sell expensive bottles of wine]. Getting you up $50 has no direct correlation on my tip, I’m not working on any sort of commission. That being said, if you work at a wine bar, a good by-the-glass program [menu] is how you draw people in. One of the best ways to justify having a large by-the-glass program in a small establishment is aggressively selling what’s already open, although the advent of the coravin [a tool that allows you to pour wine from a bottle without removing the cork] is helping cut down on this. But common tactics involve selling flights of what’s already open, or opening a large or expensive bottle that you wouldn’t normally sell by the glass on a busy night, and going table to table offering to sell a glass.
In terms of customers asking for recommendations, I love it. I don’t have a job if they don’t! I may well try and talk you into a different bottle even if you didn’t ask for a recommendation, if I think a certain bottle may not be ready, or if I think you should drink your bottles in a different order. Or maybe I suspect the bottle is really different than what you’re used to.
The biggest lesson I had to learn is that recommending wine isn’t about what I like, it’s about what the customer likes. I’m trying to pick up on what kind of styles my customer generally enjoys and I may well steer them toward a wine I dislike if I think it’s going to work for them.
Jane*, server at a Michelin star restaurant in San Francisco: When I’m interacting with a guest, I’m assessing all kinds of things. How have they been interacting with my coworkers so far? What are they wearing? Are they celebrating something? What’s their disposition? Do they live nearby? Are they foodies on vacation? Basically, why are they here and what are their expectations?
Fine dining is a good job for hyper-empathetic people. We size someone up (in a non-aggressive kind of way) and determine what their needs will be. This is a big question: “Are there any dietary restrictions or food allergies?” The way they answer that question reveals so much about who they are and what kind of experience they want. My knowledge, as well as my coworker’s knowledge, of the menu is solid. I can talk about it tableside all night if a guest wants. I make sincere recommendations based on my interactions, and I’m not afraid to be honest.
I’m also really controlling over my tables. For example, if you’re a vegan, I’m not going to make my award-winning chef heavily modify his dishes. I’ll push you in the direction I want you to go — that’s my job, to manage your expectations. That’s what recommendations are all about: Managing expectations. I have zero issues with telling someone no — a hard fucking no — and won’t hesitate to ask a manager to intervene so that I can defend my hard work and our chef’s creativity.
I don’t like the ‘up-sell’ mentality, it’s condescending and dishonest. I care about the restaurant and my connection to it, so I want folks to feel comfortable handing me the reigns. A lot of times, people will let me order for them. Put simply: I’ve had the privilege of eating and drinking what I sell, so I tell folks what I like, what I love and what I think we do best.
Aram V., server at a Mediterranean restaurant in L.A.: I love our menu so I prefer when customers ask me for recommendations — I enjoy guiding their experience. My only worry is recommending something that they end up disliking, which thankfully has yet to happen. Ideally, a customer would tell me what direction they’re leaning toward or give me a few options to select from, that way I can get a better understanding of what they want. Trying to give someone a recommendation when I know nothing about their likes or dislikes is a recipe for disaster, so usually I’ll ask them if they prefer fish, red meat or chicken and go from there.
Our menu is fairly expensive, so if I do recommend some of the more expensive items, it’s not because they’re expensive per se — they just happen to be my favorite things on the menu.